best hip-hop of 2011
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The Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2011

2011 was a year of great diversity, in which rap fans were faced with enough variety to find whatever flavor of hip-hop they wanted.

5. Saigon – The Greatest Story Never Told [Suburban Noize]

Saigon - The Greatest Story Never Told

To say Brian “Saigon” Carenard had a chip on his shoulder while putting this album together would be a gross understatement. Dropped from Atlantic Records after refusing to provide overtly radio-ready singles, he spent the next few years hard at work on the mostly Just Blaze-produced Greatest Story, which he once claimed to be the best album of the last 20 years. It isn’t, but it sure does have its moments. On the strength of a Jay-Z cameo and cracking drums, “Come On Baby” absolutely bangs, while the gospel-tinged “Clap” features some of Saigon’s hardest rapping on the whole album (“Clap your hands if you’re tired of hearing gunshots / Or hearing news about who got popped / By another black man or knockin’ a white cop”). Even though the last 40 of the 80 minutes here are decidedly weaker than the first, this is a pure rap album in every sense of the term. Don’t sleep. — Mike Madden

4. Killer Mike – Pl3dge [SMC Recordings]

Killer Mike - Pl3dge

Like its predecessors, Pl3dge cogently blends the fierce and the smooth. That’s not just because Killer Mike vacillates between partying, bragging, and expressing discontent — with the government, false prophets, corrupt businessmen, or anyone helping keep his people in economic slavery. He’s fiery and cool in each mode. His confrontational style pushes hard, like Bumpy Knuckles or Ice Cube, but with a sense of purpose, the latter hasn’t had since 1992. Yet humor and charm are always evident. Both political parties, most preachers, and most corporations don’t give a lick about the struggles of the poor, he tells us. Take this as the people’s music, then, a contrast with Watch the Throne‘s capitalist buffet, though Killer Mike is also comfortable basking in the limelight, waltzing with words. The album has as much style and good-old-fashioned ego as any hip-hop today. — Dave Heaton

3. Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne [Roc-a-Fella]

Jay-Z and Kanye West - Watch the Throne

Jay-Z and Kanye West have shared microphone duties on tracks in the past — on the remix to Talib Kweli’s “Get By” remix, on Jay’s “Hate”, on T.I.’s “Swagga Like Us”, and on Kanye’s own “Monster”, “So Appalled”, and the remix to “Power”. Yet, their long-awaited full-length tag-team-up Watch the Throne was undoubtedly hip-hop’s blockbuster release of the year. It’s a big-budget behemoth, packed with opulent samples, stylistic shifts, ideas both lofty and banal, and — of course — the gargantuan personalities of the album’s leading men. If anyone thought Jay and ‘Ye were unabashedly self-absorbed on their solo outings, rap’s current kings use this opportunity to continue exhibiting their requisite share of narcissism and navel gazing.

Thing is, they’re so mesmerizingly good at it — like Eminem and Royce Da 5’9 are so obnoxiously good at what they do — that it’s easy to miss the fine line between self-congratulatory rhetoric and the recognition of bona fide struggle, between bragging and backing it up, between “luxury rap” and rapping as a luxury (that is, having nothing left to prove). This is life at the top while wondering which direction is really “up”. Slightly more edict than epic, Watch the Throne finds Jay-Z personifying the challenge to outpace adversity (“If you escaped what I escaped / You’d be in Paris gettin’ fucked up too”), while Kanye expresses the uneasiness of wearing the crown (“Sophisticated ignorance / Write my curses in cursive”). — Quentin B. Huff

2. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up [Sub Pop]

Shabazz Palaces - Black Up

“Clear some space out / So we can space out.” That’s Palaceer Lazaro (aka Ishmael Butler, formerly of Digable Planets fame) on Black Up, the full-length debut of his project Shabazz Palaces, and those words couldn’t sum up the overall feel of the album more precisely. As great as Lazaro is on the mic — and he is great, even though his greatness seems to come from his endless quirks rather than his sheer technical skill or lyricism — the sonic architecture of Black Up is what really creates its appeal. Skeletal, glitchy, bass-heavy, and sometimes bewildering, the beats here create such an enveloping atmosphere that it’s hard to walk away from the album once opener “Free Press and Curl” kicks in. Through and through, this is audacious, futuristic stuff, and right now it’s in a realm all by itself. Imitators, come forth. — Mike Madden

1. Big K.R.I.T. – Return of 4eva [Def Jam]

Big Krit

Despite the hype surrounding Big K.R.I.T. since he emerged on the mixtape circuit a few years ago, some are of the opinion that he isn’t actually that great of a rapper. Such has been the enthusiasm for the Mississippi native’s skills as a producer and songwriter that many have been compelled to talk down his abilities on the mic. Contrary to this belief, K.R.I.T. is actually a wonderful MC. His laid-back southern drawl is warm and comforting. He wraps his voice around his words with real elegance, letting his rhymes flow smoothly. And he can chant his own hooks, to neck-snappingly good effect. While his other talents have thus far threatened to elbow his merits as an MC out of sight, everything comes together brilliantly on Return of 4eva, K.R.I.T.’s love letter to the rap game and southern hip-hop culture.

Over 21 brilliantly constructed songs, K.R.I.T. tips his hat to southern rap’s greats and illustrates the impact they’ve had on his life. Writing and producing every track, the 25-year-old channels the spirit of maestros like Organized Noize, Pimp C, and Three 6 Mafia in a way that recalls their mid-’90s output. But far from just exploiting their legacy (à la Game, whose love of West Coast greats sometimes veers dangerously close to misrepresentation rather than straight homage) the record feels like a celebration of their legend. K.R.I.T. wants to his listeners to understand their importance by taking them back in time to when Southern pavements crumbled under the weight of Scarface’s bombastic beats blasting from old school Chevys. And with his snappy snares, well-chosen soul samples, and infectious hooks, he knows what made their music so great. On “Rotation”, for example, you can almost feel the steering wheel in your hand.

But away from his technical merits behind the mixing desk, K.R.I.T. is actually the perfect guide to the south because he helms the album with the humility of a kid who once had his hands and face pressed up to the candy shop window and is now right in front of the counter. He begins the gorgeously soulful “Dreamin'” by acknowledging his heroes influence before later outlining some of the hurdles he’s overcome in his fledgling career. “I ain’t rappin’ about dope nor did I sell it / I guess the story of a country boy just ain’t compelling,” he says, bemoaning today’s image-conscious industry. And while there are some surprises (“Get Right” is a cool ride through Los Angeles’ palm tree paradise, while song-of-the-year contender “Another Naive Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism” sees K.R.I.T. in character as he bemoans the lack of opportunities for the poor and undereducated), they don’t detract from this being a fully cohesive work, but instead, highlight that Big K.R.I.T. is far from a one-trick artist. On the contrary, he’s got all the attributes to emulate the southern greats he looks up to so earnestly.– Dean Van Nguyen